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7 Exercises to Improve Your Digital Painting Skills

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

When you get a graphics tablet for the first time, it's hard to stop yourself from painting all these ideas out of your head. You try, they turn out worse than expected, but you keep trying. Sometimes you get this feeling that maybe you should practice before getting into real painting, but these exercises are so boring! You want to paint a dragon, not a couple of shaded blocks.

I feel you! That's why I've prepared a set of exercises that will make you learn without having to paint boring things. Paint whatever you like using any of these techniques, and you'll see progress in no time!

1. Paint With Light Only

We usually start with a white canvas, but that's simply a remnant of a traditional medium. This "default" position forces us to paint both light and shadow, even though shadow isn't really a thing—it's just lack of light (see my article about light and shadow to learn more).

By starting with a black canvas, you're forcing yourself to paint with light only, making shadow what it should be—an area without light.

Step 1

Prepare a sketch of your object.

drawing lion

Step 2

Invert its colors (in Photoshop you can use the shortcut Control-I) and fill the background with black.

drawing lion inverse

Step 3

Lower the Opacity of the sketch (make it almost transparent).

drawing lion transparent lines

Step 4

This is where the fun begins. Define your light source, guess which areas it reaches, and paint them with white.

lion painting white light

Step 5

That main light bounces off the ground, so it creates an ambient light under the object. Use it to shade the object some more, this time with a darker shade.

lion painting reflected light

Step 6

That's it! You can finish your exercise here, or go further and refine the picture. You can leave it as it is, or use this as a shadow layer (in Multiply mode) for a color layer to create a "normal" picture.

lion painting details

2. Limit Your Colors

There are so many colors in Photoshop's color picker that it can make you dizzy! There's no guide to using them, either—they all look equal, so which color should you choose for the start? Green? Yellow? Yellowish green?

The truth is most objects have a limited color palette. Usually it's two or three main colors, and one or two colors for details. If you use more, it may start to look fake.

To practice working with colors without spending too much time on choosing them, prepare a limited color scheme before you start:

  1. main color 1
  2. main color 2
  3. detail color 1
  4. detail color 2
color shceme limit

To make it even easier, create shades for every color:

  1. half-light (darker, more bluish)
  2. shadow (even darker and more bluish)
  3. reflected light (a bit brighter than half-light, more bluish and less saturated)

You use Photoshop's Hue/Saturation adjustment (Control-U) to create these shades out of the main scheme.

color scheme light shadow

Now, forget about the color picker and start painting!

Step 1

Paint your object with the shadow colors.

painting with color scheme shadow

Step 2

Use the half-light colors to paint all the areas that aren't crevices.

painting with color scheme ambient light

Step 3

Use the main color to paint the directly illuminated areas.

painting with color scheme main light

Step 4

Use the reflected light color to paint on the opposite side of the light source.

painting with color scheme reflected light

Step 5

Finish the painting. Now you're allowed to add other color accents here and there, but these shouldn't be dramatic changes.

As you can see, planning your color palette at the beginning makes the whole process faster and more convenient. You can also easily test any color combination before you investing time and effort in a detailed object.

painting with color scheme refined.

3. Copy Colors From Reality

You can hear professionals saying: "Photos aren't good references, use reality instead—you'll learn more". This is true, but they rarely mention how hard it is!

Let's say you want to paint a particular object. For the purpose of painting, we see it as a set of colors of various areas. Where do you start? Which color do you pick first? And how to choose it, when it looks different depending on its neighbors?

If you used a photo instead, you could use the Eyedropper Tool and see what shades there are in the picture. You'd probably be surprised—you'd find shades that you'd never expect to see there! A black object can contain shades of blue and yellow, white human skin can be shaded with greens and violets... Your eyes lie to you!

Let's put the Eyedropper Tool aside, and use something more educational instead.

Step 1

You're going to need a card, possibly stiff and with neutral color. If you don't have one, you can print it using 50%K.

Use scissors or a cutter to cut two square holes in it. One of them should be about 10mm high, and the other about 5mm high.

how to copy colors from reality tools

Step 2

Find a scene you want to paint. If you treat it solely as an exercise, feel free to take a photo and prepare line art out of it. However, if you plan to post the result as anything more than a study, your fans may feel cheated!

how to copy colors from reality scene

Step 3

Use your card to separate a color from the others. Then try to pick the same color in your program. Try to look at the card as if the colors were printed on it (closing one eye may help).

Use the bigger hole for big areas, and the small one for smaller. You can also use them both for a comparison, when two shades look identical at first glance. If a shade is too small to be separated even by the smaller hole, it means you should paint it later, when all the bigger shades are defined.

how to copy colors from reality usage

Start with the colors that are the most abundant in the scene. Once you have them established, you may not need the card anymore—your eyes will have enough support in your painting to help you pick the colors optically.

how to copy colors from reality study basic

That's it! It may be terribly hard at first, but with time you'll get so efficient at seeing the colors you won't need the card anymore. This exercise is the best there is to learn colors and the relations between them. In contrast to using the Eyedropper Tool, here you consciously decide which color to use and where, and that decision is remembered.

What you may notice is that after finishing this exercise your mind will start analyzing the colors around you. This is a funny experience, but if it annoys you, don't worry—it goes away with time!

how to copy colors from reality study done

4. Paint Using a Big Brush

We paint to embody some vision in our heads. While that vision seems to be complete from the start, painting is a process, and you must do it step by step—there's no way to have it all done just like that.

This creates another problem. If I want to paint a dragon, where do I start? Should I paint the wings first, or maybe the eyes? And what about the scales? And when do I shade the whole thing?

The solution to these problems are levels of detail. You start big and loose, then you go smaller and more detailed. This lets you keep the uniformity of your picture—you never have a detailed head on one side and a sketched paw on the other. You also don't waste time searching for "that perfect brush". Just take a big one and start painting!

This exercise is a very short one. Just from now on, start all your paintings with a big, irregular brush. Then use it to block the light, and if you see something nice is being born, continue as usually. If not, you can start again—it doesn't take much time. This method doesn't guarantee every work will be a success, but it gives you a chance to learn about a failed one before you invest time in it.

To clarify, when I say "big brush" I don't mean huge strokes—they just should be big in proportion to the object. So, if you want to prepare for painting with a series of "thumbnail sketches", your brush can actually be quite small!

how to paint thumbnails

5. Shade Without a Directional Light Source

When you learn about shading and lighting, you usually start by picking a light source. Once you know where it is, you know which parts of the object should be illuminated, and which darkened by shadow.

However, if you look around, you'll see that objects are rarely so neatly illuminated by a single light source with a clear direction. They're usually flooded with ambient light—a kind of light that may come from one direction, but later bounces off everything, which makes it look as if it was simply "around".

If you want to shade your objects naturally instated of dramatically, you need to master this way of lighting. It's really simple, once you know it!

To use this exercise you need to simply understand one rule. Usually we shade an object with two lights: main light and reflected light. Everything in between is shadow.

how to paint ambient occlusion sphere lack
how to paint ambient occlusion example lack
This bird flies in darkness, illuminated by a strong light coming from a single direction

A better idea for more realistic scenarios is to shade the object even before the lights are introduced. To do it, use a slightly brighter shade of the shadow color and paint everything that isn't a crevice or anything similar.

how to paint ambient occlusion sphere
how to paint ambient occlusion example
This bird is illuminated not only by the main light source, but also by ambient light coming from the sky

If you do this correctly, your object during the first lighting phase should look more like 2 than 1.

how to paint ambient occlusion scales

That's the whole exercise! If you missed the rule, here it is once again: before you start shading in a classic way, imagine a subtle light all around and illuminate the object according to it. Only then you can start shading. You may discover that your picture doesn't even need as strong light as you expected!

6. Study Before Painting

"Wow, this is such an amazing bird, I'm going to paint a griffin with these colors! It's going to be awesome!" You open Photoshop and... stop! Don't start painting yet. Ask yourself: have I ever drawn a bird before? Or a big cat? A griffin may be an imagined creature, but its parts are made of real ones. You can't paint something and tell someone it's a griffin's beak when it doesn't look like any beak, only because "griffins don't exist, so how do you know..."

If you've never drawn something, don't expect you'll get it right the first time. You may be able to recognize an eagle when you see one, but it doesn't mean you know how to draw something recognizable as an eagle. If you've never paid attention to it, you just can't know it! You can learn more about this phenomenon in my article Why Is It So Hard to Draw From Imagination?

If you think you can draw it, test it before you start. Sketch an eagle wing or lion legs. Was it easy? Great, you can start your amazing new piece. Was it hard/impossible to do? Great! You've just saved yourself hours of working on a painting you are not able to paint correctly (yet).

study before painting

Do this exercise every time you want to paint some new great idea. Find out what elements it'll be built of, then sketch them separately. If they look correct, you're free to start. If not, gather a lot of references and just draw, a lot. You can find specific exercises made for this purpose in my article about building the visual database.

study before painting example

The topic isn't the only thing you should study before painting. Practice lighting, colors, composition... Don't let your future masterpiece be a mere testing ground for your skills!

study before painting lighting reference

7. Learn the Values of Colors

By starting a painting in grayscale and adding the colors later, you may make the process easier and less confusing. However, it may make you miss the important part of composition—the value.

Colors have a certain brightness, but they also have a value—the brightest blue will be always darker than the brightest yellow. I've explained it in detail in my article How to Master Value, so check it if you want to know more. Here I'll show you an exercise that you can just incorporate into your "normal" paintings.

If you turn a classic color wheel to grayscale, you'll see this:

colors in grayscale

It may seem confusing, but you just need to understand that green is bright gray, red is medium gray, and blue is dark gray. The other colors that are mixtures of those are also mixtures of their values, so it's easy to calculate theirs.

colors value
why are some colors darker

Why is it so important? Let's say you've painted this bird in grayscale:

values painting grayscale

Now you want to add these colors to it:

values painting colors

You proceed to paint these colors on a separate layer, then you change its Blend Mode to Color. And... this happens:

values painting muddy dull colors color mode

Why? The colors have been adjusted to the shading layer, which doesn't contain any information about value. For example, blue on top of a bright shade is brightened by lowering its Saturation. And it works—blue gets brighter, just not the way you wanted. But Photoshop can't read your mind!

To fix this, before adding the colors use Multiply Layer to "color" the object with grays. Use dark gray instead of blue, light gray instead of green, and so on.

values painting gray shades

If you add your colors now, they'll work like a charm!

values painting corrected

The best thing about understanding values is that it lets you plan the final impact of colors. Our eyes search for contrast first, and colors are less important. No matter how colorful your picture, if you get the values wrong it will not "work" properly for viewers.

Values are not only important for painting in grayscale—even if you paint with colors at once, you must understand that fourth attribute hidden behind Hue, Saturation, and Brightness. Remember: for your eyes it's not only "blue" or "yellow"—it's "dark" and "bright"!

values painting comparison

That's All!

I hope these exercise will let you see some quick progress! If you liked this tutorial and you have an appetite for more, you can also check 10 Basic Mistakes in Digital Painting and How to Fix Them. Or, if you want a more practical approach, try one of my digital painting tutorials like How to Remove Lines From a Drawing or Create a Furry Mascot.

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